The ultimate film about the theatre, All About Eve racked up the most nominations ever (14!) at the 1950 Academy Awards. This record stood for forty-seven years until Titanic tied that record in 1997.
Superbly directed and written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film contains some of the smartest dialogue ever to grace the screen. People in real life may not talk this way, but for two hours and fifteen minutes thankfully they do.
Bette Davis (in the performance of her career) stars as Margo Channing, legendary Broadway star, and Anne Baxter as the conniving ingenue, Eve Harrington. Anchored by these two powerhouse performances, the rest of the cast is no-less stellar, including George Sanders’ Oscar-winning support as an acid-tongued critic, Celeste Holm as Margo’s best friend, and Thelma Ritter as Margo’s outspoken dresser, Birdie.
The satirical script drips with verbal venom and contains one classic line after another. At one crucial moment in the film, the barbs take a breather and Margo states, “I detest cheap sentiment.” So did Alfred Newman, whose score is anything but sentimental. But when it is, Newman mockingly ladles on the sentiment.
The main titles functions as an overture, beginning with a brass fanfare followed by a martial string meloldy, signaling the theatricality and ambition of the drama about to unfold. Each of the three lead female characters—Margo, Eve, and Karen (Holm)—are given their own themes, all beginning with an octave leap in the melodies that tie their characters and their fates together.
Mankiewicz staged the film as a play (meant as a compliment for a change). Newman steered clear of the witty exchanges, scoring the film sparingly (it occupies only about a third of the running time), and letting the orchestra soar during the transitions, pauses, and wordless interludes.
However, Newman’s music accompanies one memorable monologue with the perfect dose of “cheap sentiment.” When Eve recounts her sad past to her “idol,” Margo, a solo violin and the strings underscore the vapidity of her tale and the music tells us subtly that Eve may be more than just a gushing fan.
In the final scene, a new ingenue (Barbara Bates) stands in front of a wardrobe mirror wearing Eve’s coat and holding Eve’s newly won acting trophy as Eve’s theme and the opening fanfare crash (and clash) side by side. Newman’s music and Milton Krasner’s cinematography with the three-way mirror point out the irony of the tale, continuing the vicious circle of lies told by Eve at the beginning of the film, now apparent in Eve’s downfall.
Alfred Newman provided the perfect musical curtain to showcase this marvelous film. As Page Cook wrote in Films In Review, “Rarely has a film score been so succinct, or so concomitantly enriching as Newman’s…Or so cinematic.”